My journey as a community manager started with volunteering. As a small child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who were Catholic and who had convictions around serving others in need. Their line of thinking was straight out of Vatican II; you help others, you believe in the base goodness of people, and you become an active part of your community because that’s what Jesus would do. While I’m not a religious person, which I know makes them sad, I did learn a lot of lessons early on about what community and service means.
During a break from college, I spent the day with my grandparents. We cleaned their church’s kitchen. They were expecting over 100 homeless people to stay at the church for a week; the church would provide shelter and food. (They do this every year.) My grandfather started to grumble that barely anyone had shown up to help. I quipped that he should advertise that his unbelieving, queer granddaughter lent a hand as a sort of wake-up call/motivation. But it was my grandma who hit the nail on the head when she said the other parishioners didn’t feel strongly enough about the role the church played in the larger community.
To me, that’s the essence of a community manager’s job: to bring the people together. To facilitate conversations and foster cohesion and to make your own job obsolete. At the very least, the role should render your current goals obsolete because the community is now cleaning that kitchen, or doing whatever needs to be done.
In college, I volunteered with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and pagan groups. My geeky hobbies led me to discover online communities and to moderation and curation. When I graduated from college, I started working in e-commerce. But I found myself greatly missing community building, specifically the idea of contributing to something bigger and better in the world.
Then in 2010, I attended a meeting in Seattle to put together GeekGirlCon, a convention celebrating geeky women. For more than two years, I had a bigger purpose to contribute to. GeekGirlCon grew from an idea to a full-blown, volunteer-run nonprofit. It consumed every bit of my non-work time, and as president and marketing director, I was happy with that being the case. Nothing beat seeing the faces of smiling attendees, inspired cosplayers and lines for panels with feminism in the title.
Part of being a community manager also means being able to recognize and understand burnout, in addition to developing the comfort to allow the community to fly without you. I’d taken a job at Moz, a marketing SaaS company, with what’s now a community of over 500,000 marketers and a team of five full-time staffers and a handful of contractors. In the words of Parks & Rec‘s Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.”
Community managers can’t do everything. I couldn’t do two full-time jobs anymore than my grandfather could motivate others to clean that church kitchen. I stepped down from GeekGirlCon, which was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. But the decision was rooted in self care.
Community management is a dynamic field. At Moz, my goals and work change about every six months—sometimes every quarter. I’m lucky to have strong organizational support from the c-suite right down to my team members. We focus on community members’ happiness, in addition to creating and sharing educational resources related to marketing. In turn, our community helps each other with specific issues.
My coworker, Charlene Inoncillo, and I put together the company’s annual conference, MozCon, an event we spend north of $1 million to host. Our only budgetary goal is for the conference to pay for itself. (It’s only happened once.) While Moz certainly is a company making money, our community team gets to focus on education, on delight and on helping other marketers shine. I can’t think of a better way to run a community; we see this as a rare feat in the for-profit world.
I imagine someday having an itch for a bigger mission again. But right now I’m learning from the best and whole assing one thing. My grandma, who is now 80-years-old, talked to me last week to get advice on putting cardamom in her baked rice pudding for her church social.